So, hideously late -- months and months after everyone else, I'm sure -- I finally got around to reading What I Saw and How I Lied, the 2008 National Book Award Winner for Young People's Literature.
From the second chapter:
It was 1947, and the war was over. Now there was music on every radio, and everybody wanted a new car. Nobody had a new car during the war -- they weren't even making them -- and nobody took pictures, because there wasn't any film. One thing about a war? You never have new.
But now our fathers and brothers and cousins were home, and our Victory Gardens had been turned back into lawns, because now we could buy not only want we needed but what we wanted, vegetables and coffee and creamy butter. Cameras and cars, and brand-new washing machines, even. Appliances were the reason my stepfather was getting rich.
We were lucky enough to live in Queens, where you could put a nickel in a turnstile and ride the subway to Manhattan, the place where everybody in the world wanted to be. They left the lights burning in the skyscrapers all night long, because now they could.
I hadn't meant to quote quite that much, but Evie Spooner's voice has a way of doing that -- you start reading and just don't want to -- can't -- stop. And I had to include that last paragraph -- even though very little of the book actually takes place in New York, those few pages read like a love letter to the city. I'm very much a rural lady, but this book made me itch to drive a few hours south, if only for a weekend. The scenes in Florida felt different. No less real, but in my mind's eye movie (don't you get those when you read?), the two settings had entirely different lenses and filters. I think it'll take a re-read to figure that one out.
Evie Spooner's story is a coming-of-age story. Like a lot of coming-of-age stories, there is a tragedy. Like a lot of coming-of-age stories, there is a first love. Like a lot of coming-of-age stories, our heroine learns that the adults in her life are not the shining stars she has always believed them to be. There are lies, there is betrayal, there is injustice, and Evie sees it all. Heck, as the title suggests, she participates in some of it.
I'm deliberately being vague -- the story itself is a simple one, and an old one, but I think it's better to get it from Evie. Because it's her voice that makes this book a special one.
It isn't the only thing that's special. The book -- and Evie -- evoke the romance of the era, but also the ugliness of it. It's a hard thing to reconcile.
The strange thing? I never connected emotionally with the book. It may have been the noir feel, it may have been that Evie kept me at arm's length, it may have been a combination of the two along with something else I haven't identified. The even stranger thing? It wasn't an issue. I never wanted to put it down, I never felt frustrated with the distance, the characters never felt unreal to me. Somehow, the emotional distance felt right.
It allowed me to wonder. It allowed me to wonder about how much Evie was keeping back. About when she actually knew things, whether she was ready to admit them or not. Unanswered questions can be frustrating, sure, but in this case, they made the book feel bigger, richer, more real. And those unanswered questions would allow for a great discussion in a book group. If I ever get around to starting a Teen Books for Adult Readers book group at the library, this'll be on the shortlist.
Book source: My local library.